Martha Spong is a United Church of Christ pastor, a clergy coach, editor of The Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle, and coauthor of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) with Rachel Hackenberg.
Early on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb.
They went to perform a service, out of love for one they had lost. They went to fulfill their obligations, the expectations of their faith. They never expected what they would find: an empty tomb. They never expected an earthquake, or angels, or Christ himself.
We come with our expectations, our emptiness and our hopes. We come with the crosses we have carried, the stones that block our way. We come to meet the Christ and to hear his greeting.
We come to remind each other that nothing Absolutely nothing! Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Before I went to seminary, I sang in a church choir around the time of a major renovation to the pipe organ. For many months, a piano sufficed to accompany both choral and congregational singing. At the service to dedicate the restored and improved organ, fifty singers lined up in the cloister near the sanctuary for the processional, an anthem composed by one of the choir members. I remember the beautiful setting and the challenge of singing a cappella and harmonizing in tune as we walked in pairs through two doorways and around a corner into the sanctuary.
Here is the text we sang:
Open now thy gates of beauty, Zion, let me enter there, where my soul in joyful duty waits for him who answers prayer. Oh, how blessed is this place, filled with solace, light, and grace!
As a person who is always dubious about congregations that set too high a value on the physical plant, I must yet confess that I loved the physical space in which I sang with that choir. In memory, the space, when filled with people, is more than a building. It is an experience. My hippocampus holds particular memories of high holy days, the colors and fragrances and ambient human sights and sounds, the people singing, their hands waving palms or weaving them into crosses.
The church is not a building, but the times and places we have gathered form sense memories, “filled with solace, light, and grace.”
Friends, it’s okay to miss it all this week, and to name that we miss it. What might help would be to include as many voices as we can in worship leadership, whether that’s sharing the readings on a conference call, taking turns speaking on Zoom, or using whatever video capabilities we have to incorporate familiar faces for recorded or live-streamed worship. The experience of Palm Sunday is sensory, and while physical distancing may flatten the five senses to two, we have the opportunity to evoke the story while naming the ways touch and smell and even taste weave together with sight and hearing to bring our faith story to life.
Like the choir members exerting themselves to stay on key while turning a corner, we will be doing two things at the same time. We will be allowing the faithful to grieve this temporary loss in the midst of predictions of devastating losses, and we will be laying the groundwork for a commemoration of Easter spent at the tomb rather than crowded into our flower-filled sanctuaries. The crowds declare our Savior. Jesus, the sovereign seated humbly on a donkey, is the cornerstone of our faith, for this season, and the next, and all that are to come. Our buildings may be closed, yet may we be open now.
Lord, my God, I come before thee, come thou also unto me; where we find thee and adore thee, there a heav’n on earth must be. To my heart, O enter thou, let it be thy temple now!
“Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty” – translator: Catherine Winkworth; author: Benjamin Schmolck – verses 1 and 2